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Pilot Blamed For Cable Car Accident Officers Face Charges After Pentagon Investigation Finds They Chose To Break Rules

The Pentagon has concluded that the American pilot and crew were responsible for the accident last month that killed 20 people when his Marine Corp jet struck a ski lift’s cable in Italy and they should face disciplinary charges, officials said Wednesday.

A military investigation has found the jet, an EA-6B Prowler, was flying too low and too fast when it sheared the cable near the resort town of Cavalese, sending a gondola full of skiers hurtling more than 300 feet to the ground, the officials said.

While the Marine Corps already has acknowledged the jet violated restrictions on altitude and routes for training flights over northern Italy, a reconstruction of the jet’s flight on the afternoon of Feb. 3 clearly laid the blame for the accident on the pilot and the crew, the officials said.

The charges, the officials said, are so serious the pilot and crew could face court-martial and prison sentences.

“They clearly knew what the rules were,” one senior official said, noting that the pilot had violated speed and altitude limits he himself outlined for the crew before taking off. “But they didn’t follow the rules.”

Even so, the investigation’s findings - to be disclosed today at the American air base in Aviano, where the Prowler’s crew was stationed - are also expected to cite broad lapses in training, planning and supervision that could result in disciplinary action for several other officers, too.

The accident, which killed tourists from Italy, Germany, Poland, the Netherlands and Austria, provoked a furor in Italy and strained relations with the United States. In the weeks after the accident, Italy demanded to prosecute the crew under its own criminal laws, but NATO’s charter clearly leaves jurisdiction with the United States.

The investigation’s strong conclusions - and its recommendations for disciplining the crew and, less severely, some of its supervisors - could ease the strain in relations and temper demands for justice in Italy.

After the accident, many Italians reported having seen American and Italian jets “hot-dogging” on training flights, swooping low through the Alpine valleys, but it was not clear this was the case with the Prowler.

After the Italian authorities complained at the beginning of the investigation about a lack of American cooperation, the United States has gone to great lengths to include the Italians in all steps along the way, including an Italian colonel on the investigation team, for example. Secretary of Defense William Cohen telephoned Italy’s minister of defense, Beniamino Andreatta, once again Wednesday to discuss the results of the investigation.

The investigation was led by Maj. Gen. Michael DeLong, deputy commander of the Marine Corps’ Atlantic command. Officials reached in Aviano and at the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart, Germany, declined to discuss the investigation before Thursday’s news conference. The Pentagon’s spokesman, Kenneth Bacon, also declined comment.

But officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said DeLong’s report would recommend that the pilot, Capt. Richard Ashby of Mission Viejo, Calif., and three crew members - Joseph Schweitzer of Westbury, N.Y., William Raney of Englewood, Colo., and Chandler Seagraves, of Nineveh, Ind., all of them captains - face “serious charges” from the accident.